Tim Burton is a visual stylist with few peers in today's Hollywood---and when you realize that most studio films are exercises in set decoration with wispy-thin characters who won't leave any footprints on the mahogany floors, that's saying a hell of a lot.It's also no revelation that director Tim Burton's films, while looking exquisite, of ten lack a spiritual, human center, as if Burton could never draw a soul into his immaculate production sketches. Whether this is his fault, the fault of his collaborators, or the fault of actors trying to match up to matte paintings, no one can say, but I have some ideas.
"Is it a coincidence that Burton's best films feature characters named Ed?"
Burton has, in his career, made two fully-realized, fully-formed films. First is EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, a delightful little parable about a guy with giant scissors for hands which we won't concern ourselves with now. The second is the immaculately entertaining biopic of loser producer/director/writer/actor ED WOOD, easily his best and most accomplished film from stem to stern.
So why does ED WOOD, the film that marks the travails both personal and professional of the most insipid auteur to ever wield a camera, work so well? Burton, usually celebrating his characters' visual stylings from a distance, is in this case forced to take Wood, an actual human man and not a demon or a monster, apart and rebuild him to make him better, stronger, faster. Getting his hands dirty on Wood's personal tragedies and triumphs, learning to identify with his subject, makes Burton the genius heralded by his believers for years. The viewer can tell that Wood's story makes Burton laugh, makes him cry, makes him aspire, and that passion makes the audience feel those things as well.
Another dose of credit must go to one of the most chemical screen pairings of the 90's---Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin Landau as the pathetially aged shell once known as Bela Lugosi. There's argument that Sam Jackson deserved an Oscar for PULP FICTION, and in any other year I'd agree, but Landau has the best role of his distinguised career here. He unflinchingly stares Lugosi's ego, his loneliness, his addictions, square in the face and shows us the complex man beneath the Dracula cape.
Not enough praise can go to Depp, either, for treating Wood with respect and turning him into a hero. Sure, he's screwed up, sure, he likes to wear angora sweaters, sure, he's clueless, but Wood may have been the most driven-to-succeed filmmaker in the history of the medium. The picture we're left with is an honest, caring guy who gave his friends shots at stardom, supported the people who supported him, and was only hampered by a genuine lack of talent. His scenes with Landau are celluloid TNT, probing the nature of need and the complexities of friendship, honor, and commitment. In that respect, it's a love story of surprising depth.
As usual, Burton has a field day with his supporting players, too. Of special note is Bill Murray as the sex change-craving Bunny Breckenridge, who gets off a series of hilarious one-liners and bon mots. Also great are Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie, Juliet Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, and making a fantastic impression as Wood's hero Orson Welles in one brief scene, Vincent D'Onofrio.
Howard Shore fills in admirably and excellently for longtime Burton maestro Danny Elfman and Stefan Czapsky's beautiful black and white photography makes this film, though less flashy than most of Burton's creations, one of his most aesthetically pronounced. Frequent biopic scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski deliver the nuanced screenplay that lets Burton finally realize ALL his potential as a director for the ages.Wood himself never made a film near this good, ironically enough. But his charm, his grace, was that he always believed he was creating the grandest screen spectacle yet. For Burton, ED WOOD is, if not a spectacle, an enduring piece of work that'll be around just as long as PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. And that's a good thing.
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originally posted: 06/02/00 13:54:15